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Parenting: Growing in Good Health

Attached at the Hip: Parenting by the Book(s)

By Jessica DuLong


We're so obsessed with teaching our babies and toddlers to be independent, but human infants are designed to be dependent.


When Mark and Elly Sullivan found out that Elly was pregnant, they went straight to the bookshelves. What they discovered was an infinite amount of parenting advice and information.

"There was a lot of contradictory parenting information. A lot of the stuff I read was so wildly conjectural," Sullivan explains.

When they looked into attachment parenting (AP), however, it just made sense.

"It just seemed an awful lot kinder than the other things," says Sullivan. "While I would never consider myself a poster dad for attachment parenting, we use a lot of the elements."

What is it?

According to Attachment Parenting International, AP is "a style of parenting that develops an infant or child's need for trust, empathy and affection to create secure, peaceful and enduring relationships."

Simply put, AP is "paying responsive attention to your baby," explains Katie Granju, author of Attachment Parenting: Instinctive Care for Your Baby and Young Child and mother of three children, ages 2, 4 and 8.

And though she is cautious about drawing up an all-encompassing checklist, Granju explains that AP includes:

  • "high-touch" parenting or "baby wearing" in which the infant is carried as often as possible

  • the "family bed" where the infant sleeps with, or very near, the parents

  • breastfeeding on cue, rather than a strict feeding schedule

  • respectful weaning that allows the baby to have a say in how and when weaning occurs

Many practitioners of AP incorporate these into their parenting, but how they do so depends on the family. The idea of AP, says Granju, is "not parenting by the book, but parenting by the baby."

And that's just what the Sullivans learned: to trust their own instincts.

Putting it into practice: attachment parenting for everyday

When his son Mark Sullivan IV was born, Sullivan rearranged his work schedule to have more time at home.

"We try to carry the kid as much as possible," he explains. So while he's at home, Mark is almost always in the sling. "He'll often take his nap in the Baby Bjorn."

As a result of all that close time together, "we have a physical bond and I find that very satisfying," says Sullivan.

For the Sullivans, "high-touch" parenting has been an integral part of daily life. Their attempts at the family bed, on the other hand, have been less successful.

"We tried to do the family bed but it wasn't working," explains Sullivan. "Part of it is that our bed isn't big enough. So, after the initial attempt we decided to … follow our instincts and see what happens."

And according to Granju, flexibility is part of practicing AP. At its best, she says, AP is "organic." It is an "integrated system" that is "respectful of the baby's and the parents' temperament."

It "feels right," but what do the experts say?

In some ways, the fact that AP is so adaptable can make it hard to pin down. Yet, for parents in search of strategy advice it's important to know that what you choose is what's best for your child.

According to Isabelle Fox, Ph.D., a psychotherapist who specializes in child development and the author of Being There: The Benefits of a Stay-At-Home Parent, AP helps children feel safe and protected, laying the groundwork for future success in relationships.

When parents are responsive to their infants, explains Fox, "it tends to promote the feeling that they're valued and that their needs will be met."

In general, research into attachment bonds has demonstrated that AP is on the right track. Studies have shown that "contact comfort" — the opportunity to cling and snuggle — is the most important factor in developing attachment. This finding supports the notion that "high-touch" parenting helps foster parent-child bonds.

Other studies have shown that securely attached infants become better problem solvers, are more curious and do more exploring, and are more socially competent. Good news for parents who face criticism that AP means spoiling your kids.

Responding to criticism

Whether the concern is "spoiling" or raising children who are too dependent, AP does have critics.

In response to one mother's question, John Rosemond, the parenting advice columnist who produces Affirmative Parenting Magazine, calls AP a "hoax." He explains that "even a toddler can keep himself occupied for long periods of time," and urges parents to encourage independent play.

When critics express concern that AP means the baby will not have the freedom to be independent, Granju does not hesitate in offering a response.

"We're so obsessed with teaching our babies and toddlers to be independent," she says, "but human infants are designed to be dependent."

Children grow into it, she explains.

"You can't stop a healthy baby in a healthy parenting relationship from developing independence. It's an inborn human trait." Effective parents, according to Granju, find the balance.

And after all, "the key feature of attachment parenting is to tune into your child," says Granju. "I don't see anything negative coming out of that."

To illustrate best what she sees as the main irony in parenting today, Fox points to a single, striking image.

"So often I see mothers carrying their babies in a plastic, cradle-like thing down by the floor," she says, "and clutching their purse close to their hearts."

Jessica DuLong is a managing editor at savvyHEALTH.com.


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